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Syria: reversal ahead

16.09.2015 16:14

Thomas Flichy de La Neuville and Olivier Hanne

Only a direct commitment on the ground will enable a foreign power to have a real weight on the conflict. In effect, Syrian fighters have proved rather opportunistic during the last months. Russia, which is aware of the situation thanks to its minorities of the Levant, could play a major role in reversing the situation in favour of Bashar al-Assad. If it destroyed the Islamic state, it would become the new arbitrator of the Middle East.

Firmly defined camps, but shifting fighters

The situation in Syria opposes at first sight, clearly identified camps with their fighters, ideologies and objectives. Among the actors, we find the Islamic State, the loyalist government, Jabhat al-Nosra, the Kurds or the Christian militias. Yet the reality is more complex because of the accommodation of all these groups to the theoretical principles that guide them. An important fact must be also taken into account: Syria hasn't experienced war since World War I. This explains why large number of Syrian fighters works alternately for opposing movements, according to the opportunities. The opposing armies, meanwhile, try to rely on two levers in order to recruit their soldiers: wealth and sex.

The first lever: the salary of soldiers

The salaries vary from camp to camp. The Syrian government army pays its soldiers between 250 and 600 dollars a month depending on the rank. Al-Nosra pays between 500 and 600 dollars. It also grants a bonus based on the result (number of dead or prisoners). The Islamic State, meanwhile, pays at least $ 700 and adds a home, often without imposing to the new recruit to get immediately into the battle. Moreover, the excellent military training provided by the Islamic State allows a fighter to sell his experience at good prices in the other camp, especially in Bashar al-Assad's army. For young people without resources or social status, the commitment into militias represents an obvious added value.

The second lever: family security

The possibility of having a wife, a house and a family whose security is guaranteed in protected areas plays an important role in the choice of fighters for one side or the other, especially in favour of the Islamic State. The protected women are unaware on which side their husbands fight. Their husbands can easily pass from the Loyalist camp to the jihadist in order to increase their income. Multiple arrangements allow the fighters to pass through the drops of war. Opportunism combines with another factor: the war lowers the social control of the government over the population, especially in Damascus. These elements explain why air strikes appeared to have been totally inefficient.

Thomas Flichy de La Neuville is professor of International relations in Saint-Cyr’s military academy and research worker in the Roland Mousnier Centre – CNRS – University of Paris IV – Sorbonne.

Olivier Hann is research worker of Aix-Marseille University, expert in the Middle Ages and Islam.